Holocaust survivor tailors an American success story

October 31, 2012

Like many men, Martin Greenfield ordered a new suit when his life was about to change: He placed his order just after he was liberated from a concentration camp.

In 1945, he left Buchenwald and arrived at a German warehouse, where Allied soldiers let Greenfield pilfer four cuts of English wool. The freed captive carried the fabric to a Prague tailor, who made a suit for Greenfield from two of the cuts, with the other two as payment.

Two years later, an uncle helped Greenfield cross the Atlantic, and a fellow Czech immigrant guided him to a job as a floor boy in a Brooklyn garment factory. Within a few years, Greenfield became a tailor, assigned to the factory’s famous clients — actors, athletes, politicians. By the 1970s, he had amassed enough skill and capital to buy the factory. And today, at 84, Greenfield can count among the tens of thousands of men he has dressed, three presidents, a vice president, Cabinet secretaries and countless senators and representatives.

Through the decades, Greenfield constructed made-to-measure suits that customers ordered at special sales at Brooks Brothers and Neiman Marcus stores nationwide. Such trunk shows brought him often to the capital of the country that saved his life, where he suited up many of the men who run it.

There appears to be a fourth president among his clients. In February 2011 and then again one year later, Greenfield and his two sons — now his business partners — made trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The White House logs reveal that the Greenfields visited a personal aide in the official residence. The tailor doesn’t talk about any well-known client, until the client talks about him first.

By all accounts, the president doesn’t focus much, if at all, on clothes. He wears the same outfits into disrepair. When asked about his suits during the 2008 campaign, Sen. Barack Obama looked inside his jacket and said he was wearing an off-the-rack suit from Burberry. For his inauguration ball, he wore a tuxedo by Hart Schaffner Marx, the storied Chicago suit maker.

Greenfield’s bespoke suits fit the bill for White House wear. They can range from $1,800 to $2,700, depending on fabric and features. The tailor works simply, as he always has and in a way that few competitors still do, showing up six days a week in a union shop that employs more than 100. The plant has stayed open in a rough neighborhood during bleak decades. Greenfield’s factory has been burglarized 11 times.

On a recent visit to Greenfield’s office, before conversation could begin, his sons removed two framed photographs from the walls and shelves from among the signed photos of Paul Newman and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. If President Obama belongs in this gallery, the father and sons — and the White House — aren’t saying.

* * *

At Auschwitz, the prisoners were sorted by gender, and Martin’s 5-year-old brother, who had been hanging on him “like I was a hero,” went with his father. His younger sister was pulled away from his mother and other sister and sent in another direction because she had blond hair and blue eyes. When the registrars asked if anyone knew a trade, his father offered up Martin as a skilled mechanic.

The teenage boy seethed. The father and son had been at odds for days. His father had just traveled to retrieve Martin from Budapest, where he had been sent to live with relatives. The headstrong adolescent had sneaked away from the safety of his cousins and found work in a mechanic’s garage. Martin’s father had come to check on the boy, who had wound up in a hospital after ogling a female passerby and mangling his left hand in a running engine.

The father traced the son to an address and fumed at what he discovered: His son was renting a room in a legal house of prostitution.

Father and son returned home to their remote, idyllic town of Pav­lovo. Once reunited with his family, Martin could finally plan his bar mitzvah, which was deferred throughout his exile in Budapest. But two days after his return, the Nazis knocked on the family’s door, ordered them to pack up and hustled them off to Auschwitz.

* * *

Greenfield came down to Washington in September 2001 and stayed at the Mayflower, a short walk to the downtown Brooks Brothers, where he scheduled one of his regular made-to-measure trunk shows. He also secured an appointment with President George W. Bush, who would join the tailor after a morning in Florida. But other events overtook the day; first the sidewalks, then the streets filled with downtown workers walking northward.

Watching the exodus, Greenfield stayed put. He was stuck in place, like all Americans on Sept. 11, when air and rail travel was suspended. The morning after, he decided to walk to Brooks Brothers and open for business, in search of normalcy.

One client showed up, and then another. Whether in grief or shock, customers let Greenfield run his tape measure across their limbs and torsos, recording each of the 27 measurements in his intricate system.

All week Greenfield struggled to get home to his wife, Arlene, in New York. Finally, with the help of his friend Colin Powell, he purchased a first-class train ticket. From the train, Greenfield saw the altered Manhattan skyline. He thought of the staff at Windows on the World in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, where everybody knew him as a regular.

* * *

As a boy in the camp, Greenfield was given the chore of washing the Auschwitz guards’ clothes by hand. “I didn’t know how to wash shirts — we had a maid. And I ripped his collar,” he recalled. The shirt’s owner was incensed. “First he whipped me, then he gave me the shirt,” throwing it at the boy.

Greenfield learned to sew, and tailored the discarded shirt’s collar to fit his own neck. Then he dared to wear the shirt under his striped uniform, and noticed the reactions from guards and prisoners alike. “They thought I was somebody,” he said, noting that the new outfit allowed him into barracks and hospital hallways where he could sneak food to the famished. “I ripped a couple of others then. I was smart enough to do that. Then I had already a wardrobe!”

* * *

For more than three decades, Gen. Colin Powell bought his clothes from a PX. His orders were simple: He’d ask for a 42-long and take whatever was offered. A dozen years ago, at a cousin’s party in the Hamptons, Powell was approached by an assertive and friendly gentleman who said he had dressed generals before and would dress him, too.

Powell was preparing to be a civilian in political life, and he showed up for his Greenfield appointment in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. “I got out of the car and looked at this factory and thought I was somewhere back in the 19th century,” Powell said of the four-story plant, which stands in what had been a crime-infested part of town.

Up the steel stairs and through a creaking door, Powell saw the cluttered floors filled with pattern fragments hanging from hooks. Practiced hands pulled wool and silk through the pistoning needles of steel machines.

When making a custom suit, Greenfield allows for all sorts of variation in lapel and vent, but he keeps away from drapey Italian cuts or fastidious Savile Row features. On Powell’s first visit, Greenfield asked an Italian master tailor about one work-in-progress. The Italian’s counsel: This a little lower, that a little higher. “And Martin would say, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ ” Powell said. “They all took it all in stride. It’s just Martin.”

Powell learned how clothing constructed just for him made him look and feel different. Greenfield came to the Powell residence to meet his wife, Alma, and go over more swatches. The tailor routinely second-guessed the couple’s choices. He explained how tie colors “shouldn’t fight the camera,” in Greenfield’s terms.

“Now for a guy who wore black ties for 35 years, this was all extremely revealing,” Powell recalled. Over the years, this loyal customer referred others to Greenfield, warning his reluctant deputy at the State Department, Richard Armitage, that once he got his wide frame fitted in a just-for-him suit, he wouldn’t buy just one. Donald Rumsfeld became a client. The fitting sessions are always discreet, intimate, with shared confidences. “Martin became one of my mentors,” Powell said.

Once, knowing he’d be outside playing soccer with a bunch of kids for a Time magazine photo shoot, Powell chose a grubby old blazer from the back of his closet.

About two weeks later, Greenfield rang Powell in distress. “Have you seen the magazine?” the tailor asked. “You seen the picture they’ve got? People will think that shmatte is mine!”

* * *

In January 1945, Greenfield and the other prisoners could hear gunfire outside the camp. The German guards rounded up the thousands of prisoners and marched them out of the camp.

A Gestapo agent made Greenfield carry his pack. Greenfield managed to snoop through it, ingesting some vitamins and discarding the ammunition. There was some salami and bread, which he distributed to other prisoners.

The guard was livid and searched for the boy who swiped his supplies. The boy had made friends, however, who hid him inside a snowdrift. Greenfield survived, in part, because he was wearing extra thermal layers: the three Gestapo shirts he had torn.

* * *

Bill Clinton was the first president to welcome Greenfield inside the White House and to be personally measured by him. The president had rarely turned his mind to clothes, and this meeting was arranged through the designer Donna Karan, for whom Greenfield had long constructed the designer’s suits for men. Soon, Greenfield measured Clinton for his white-tie-and-tails outfit, which Greenfield taught him how to wear. The president bought a total of 20 garments.

Greenfield’s clientele is bipartisan. He once assembled a three-piece suit for President Gerald R. Ford, and Secret Service agents stood over him while he fashioned a bulletproof version of the vest. Greenfield had measured Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) for suits and compensated for Dole’s war-wound-withered arm and sloping shoulder.

Another time, in the late 1990s, at a trunk show in Chevy Chase, a client arrived in a wheelchair. Invading anyone’s space with a tape measure is sensitive, but this client remarked that Greenfield took admirable care with his disabled body. Greenfield knew people in wheelchairs “had to look dressed,” he said. The tailor understood the difficulties of getting clothing on and off, where to cut and taper so it looks fitted when the wearer is seated.

Back at home after the Chevy Chase visit, Greenfield’s wife was watching news of Clinton’s impeachment trial. The tailor turned when he heard a voice he recognized. On the screen was his disabled client, wearing one of his suits.

It was Charles Ruff, one of Clinton’s defense lawyers, and Greenfield had one regret. Ruff was so pleased that he had ordered six suits, and Greenfield, flabbergasted, had cut him a deal, using less-expensive fabrics to alleviate the costs of the man’s splurge. Now that same customer was on television, and the craftsman’s pride gnawed at him: “I was sorry I didn’t sell him a better suit.”

* * *

After a forced march, the surviving prisoners boarded a train headed south. They arrived in Buchenwald, and with its big flag and big gate, the camp seemed grander than those in Poland.

Inside, many of the tens of thousands of prisoners proved savvy and scheming. Greenfield was assigned a job in the munitions factory. At night, the barracks was filled with whispered instructions to bring back parts of weapons. A Russian officer with no legs was masterminding an uprising.

Before the inside job could come together, gunfire erupted outside the gate. It was April 1945. Americans were storming the camp. Emaciated and tired, Greenfield dodged bullets and the falling, burning pieces of barracks. He watched as Gestapo officers grabbed prisoners, killed them and donned their uniforms to masquerade as innocents.

Americans overtook the camp and in the aftermath, Greenfield rested at a dig site where Nazis had buried stolen valuables — jewelry, diamonds, precious metals. American soldiers hacked at the dirt with shovels, and one of them tossed to Greenfield a Schaffhausen watch.

Inside the camp, the boy confronted a young rabbi, a U.S. Army chaplain: “Where was God?” he asked, dissolving into tears when the rabbi could not muster an answer.

Before he left Buchenwald, the boy cheered the arrival of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ordered Germans from the town to be ushered into the camp to see for themselves the stacks of corpses and the living skeletons. One boy, two years younger than Greenfield, watched alongside him and seemed “the skinniest kid that ever survived,” he recalled; he was Elie Wiesel.

When Eisenhower walked toward them, “he looked like he was 10 feet tall,” Greenfield recalled. The freed prisoner shook the general’s hand.

* * *

At 19, after failing to find his parents and siblings, Greenfield reached the United States on a ship called the Ernie Pyle. He worked for a while in Baltimore, staying with his affluent cousins who treated every meal like it was a party. On his first trip to Washington as a new immigrant, Greenfield was awestruck and spent eight days visiting monuments and museums. Accompanied by a friend, he randomly struck up a conversation with Alben Barkley, the Kentucky senator. “He wanted to know where we come from, what we do here,” Greenfield recalled. Barkley was among the first American officials to visit Buchenwald and the immigrants showed him their serial-number tattoos. “He took me on a ride on a little car that they ride the senators. He bought us lunch.”

As his fluency in English improved, Greenfield became an avid newspaper reader and watched in amazement as Barkley became Truman’s vice president and, of course, a client and even a pen pal.

At the factory, Greenfield excelled, and his bosses assigned him the company’s most important customer — Eisenhower. Years after their handshake in Buchenwald, Greenfield was making clothes for the general, who was shedding his uniform for the outfits of a statesman.

The commissions were basic, conservative. Later, the immigrant decided to take a liberty.

Weeks later, the White House placed a call to his boss, who came over to Greenfield. “The president loved the suits,” the boss said, “but there’s somebody here who writes notes in his pockets.”

Greenfield had been reading about the 1956 conflict over the Suez Canal and was troubled at the thought of the English and French back in battle, along with Israel. His note, inserted in a pocket that was sewn closed, posed a simple question to Eisenhower, who had committed troops and weapons: “Why don’t you send dollars?”

Confronted by the boss, Greenfield didn’t shy away. “I write nice notes!” he said. “And I give him good advice, if only he would listen to me.”

* * *

Greenfield kept in touch with many customers. Robert Strauss, the Democratic Party chairman, became an intimate, and when President Ronald Reagan broke ground on the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Strauss ordered a limo to ferry the Greenfields around town. From his front-row seat, Greenfield saw a familiar face onstage — the rabbi whom he had met in Buchenwald. After the ceremony, Greenfield approached Rabbi Hershel Schaecter, who said he had never forgotten Greenfield or his unanswerable question. After their reunion, the two men spent decades of friendship discussing it.

It was also in Washington that New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly first bought a suit from Greenfield. Then working for the Treasury Department, Kelly enjoyed the fitting and the conversation so much that the two went to lunch at the department’s lunchroom. “You get a firehose of wisdom when you go to see him,” Kelly said.

Kelly reminisced about the suits he bought, a double-breasted cut, and the wool they chose together. He has kept it in rotation ever since. He noticed how often other people noticed; the maitre d’ at the 21 Club remarked about it and Kelly shared the maker like a secret code among influentials. “You know who can spot it?” Kelly asked. “Women.”

Kelly recalled seeing the whole Greenfield clan together at their Long Island temple a few summers ago.

Fawning over Arlene, his wife of 56 years, in the company of sons Jay and Tod and all the grandchildren, the patriarch was dressed colorfully as ever, in a purple-and-white seersucker suit. Under his vest, he wore braces, and always his breast pocket burst with a silk square. Kelly watched Greenfield command his big white Chrysler convertible, with the top down.

Arlene Greenfield had invited a few of her husband’s clients, like Kelly, to join them for a special event: Martin Greenfield’s long-postponed bar mitzvah. The service was nearly 70 years late, but his whole family was there.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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